Monday, April 5, 2010

Suffer the little children*

Paedophilia must to be the west's favourite focus for moral outrage in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. We're talking the epoch that brought us the Mi Lai massacre, the Bosnian war, Daniel Pearl's kidnapping and murder, the Tutsi/Hutu slaughter, 'nine eleven'... you get my drift. I am not trying to trivialise child sexual abuse. Exploitation of and cruelty towards children is reprehensible, indefensible, sickening. It's just that righteous indignation about alleged interfering with kiddies seems to be the cause celebré for so many, including a fair share of misogynist, racist, callous reactionaries who don't normally give a hoot about human rights.

My attention has been drawn again to the topic by the current outrage over the pontiff's seeming complicity in covering up sexual abuse of children by the clergy in Ireland and Germany. Both atheists and disaffected believers are decrying Ratzinger and the priesthood (or selected members of it) for the blind eyes they have turned. But, at the risk of sounding cynical, should we be surprised? Sexual abuse thrives in institutions where there is a massive power imbalance and no avenue for victims to be believed, comforted and supported.

Allan Innman, cartoon originally published in the newspaper of the University of Mississippi, The Daily Mississippian, 2003

Perhaps one of the reasons I did not react to the incidents of abuse in David Hill's 'The Forgotten Children' (which we have just read for book group), with shock and horror (apart from the fact that they are quite sloppily and sketchily reported) is that the only surprises for me were (a) that it wasn't rifer than his account suggests and (b) that there was ever a time or a society that thought the odds were on a kid's side if you ripped him/her from family, friends and familiar environment and sent them to be 'cared for' by unqualified Imperialist exiles, nursing frustration over their lacklustre military careers, thousands of miles from scrutiny. It is a recipe for bullying and abuse!

My book group has also just watched Pt 1 of 'The Leaving of Liverpool' to more fully bring alive for us this sorry exercise in British-Australian child development via 'centres of care'. That 90s miniseries isn't set in secular Fairbridge Farm School like Hill's book, but in St Bedes - a (fictional, I think) centre run by the St Vincent de Paul brotherhood. Of course child molestation and rape occur, hard on the heels of verbal and psychological abuse and thwacking a boy hard enough across the head for him to lose his hearing (that incident back in the British orphanage).

One of our members who is from Chile expressed her disbelief that families could so readily submit to fragmentation without resistance - it would never happen, even amongst the poorest in Chile she feels, family and community bonds are too strong. Another, of Eastern European Jewish background, wondered at the notion typically identified with English Victorian society that children 'should be seen and not heard' suggesting that view inevitably ignores children's need for love and silences their voices when abuse occurs. We also talked about parallels with the Australian government's systematic removal of Aboriginal children of mixed race from their homes and families. There was no pretence there that the children were orphans or abandoned as was argued in the case of the British kids. Once institutionalised the treatment was similarly brutal with the added abuse of trying to expunge all cultural, linguistic and spiritual ties with their communities. Given the importance of land and kinship in Aboriginal culture it is hard not to see the practice as the attempted eradication of an entire people as has been claimed.

So, in complete contradiction of John Howard's view that we can not be held accountable for the actions of previous generations, we are ALL complicit. So alienated was British-Australian society in the 1930s-70s from an appreciation of the crucial role played by family and community in nurturing a healthy, happy child, that we gave policies and practices that included the most appalling neglect, isolation and exploitation a free reign.

The church is an archaic institution - is it any wonder that denial of the rights of children - no longer condoned by our secular society - has flourished for so long within its walls?

*Matthew 19:14 - I know this quote is misinterpreted constantly and that 'suffer' means 'allow' in this context, but
its an irresistible title for this post.

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